Part One of Article – What Exactly is Empathy? (Part One)
3. Empathy is a Special Being with Another Person.
“The special being with another person – called as empathy…An element which is extremely important in understanding the personality dynamics and for affecting changes in personality, human behavior.” – Carl Rogers, Extracted from his seminar on Empathy (Youtube)
Empathy, in the psychotherapeutic sense, has been long regarded as an essential element for the building therapeutic relationship between the therapist/counselor and the client. One notable philosopher/psychologist/therapist/counselor who had one of the most elaborate and specific accounts of empathy is Carl Rogers, who was one of the founders of humanistic psychology based on his development of person-centered therapeutic approach (3).
Regarding the experience of empathy in the therapeutic room, Rogers highlighted one’s empathic of being. The counselor/therapist is attentively listening to the client, experiencing an accurate empathic understanding of the client’s world in ways that he/she listens to the emotions and feelings behind the words of the clients, and being able to reflect them to the clients (4).
In person centered counseling, Rogers believe that through the therapist’s facilitation, the individuals are richly exposed to the certain interlocking elements – empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard (5). Therapist’s deepened awareness of these conditions helps bring out the effectiveness of the therapeutic relationship in the way that the individual can be free to be real, and then becomes more autonomous, more spontaneous and more confident – the path to self enhancement.
One highlight of the psychotherapeutic notion of empathy is the “nature” of empathy.
Rogers suggested that empathy would not be defined and interpreted as a technique or skill one uses onto the other, e.g. one can hardly “use” empathy, or say apply empathy. Rather it is a state of condition as one is naturally being with another person.
From seeing the different theoretical disciplines, there are diverse determinations on empathy, from the human biological evidential existence, to the feeling and subjective therapeutic notion. In the process of gaining the deepened understanding of those various empathy interpretations, I learn to perceive the concept in a bigger and layered picture. I realize the inevitable flaws of studying empathy in mere singular angle, which corresponds to the increasing recognition of the academia on recognizing empathy as the multi-faceted and complex concept.
In the scientific psychological academia, I cannot help but feel the discrepancy between the research value and the everyday-life meaning, which can be probably the cause of the rather unilateral clinical implications on the psychologist’s work – the treatment methodology and tools of supports (e.g. what can be done better/the identification of problems), etc, and rather less focus on the clients’/patients’ active involvement in the process. The psychologist is mostly expected to be in the providing role, and client is the receiver of service. I wonder if that is indeed the cause of the rather hierarchical relationships between the psychologist and client.
However, as I was hoping to shed light from the psychotherapeutic notion, the field in which main focus lies on the direct therapist/counselor – client relationship, I feel that the psychotherapeutic field also often arrives at the same limitation as the scientific academia. Therapists/counselors continue to fall under the similar ideology that the clients have problems and needed to be changed/fixed. They easily formulate the mindset of “what I can do to change the client” and “the client needs to think in this way”. That is mostly the reason that empathy is believed to “be used” by the therapist/counselor and applied onto the client. I have heard many professionals who state that “I should use empathy onto the client”, or “I provide clients with empathy so the client feels understood”, etc. This leads to the therapist/counselor in no much different position from the clinical practitioners on the “if not authoritative but then leading” role.
It comes to me that empathy is not something to be trained or appear only within the therapeutic relationship. It is an element naturally derived in the human relationships, and in order for such natural occurrence, one would have been through the prior experiences not restricted within the counseling room (This is in line with the neuroscience argument that mirror neurons fire itself in sole behavior – meaning empathy is only derived within one person after the person has had the previous experiences/observation). Such experiences would be based on our direct interactions and learning. It is about our development of self experience and growth.
(3) Person Centered Approach, a counseling approach proposed by Carl Rogers, is one of the humanistic approaches in psychotherapy. Different from the psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology which adopt the pure scientific systematic and non-human characterization ways of the human studies, the humanistic approach focuses on the “humanity” of A Person. Carl Rogers suggest that everyone is born with the natural tendency towards life actualization – to be organismic with his current own being and what he wants to be (The congruence between self with innerness and self with surrounding). To fulfill this, one can only be true with his/her true innerness (what is inside him/her), then he/she can become open to any possibilities of self-enhancement, and then the happening to changes/growth.
(4) In the recording of Rogers’ lecture, Rogers reflected his earlier therapeutic experience, as to listen to the clients attentively, was the helpful way of therapy. Later under the support of a social worker Rogers encountered, Rogers became attended to the therapist’s state of having “the attentive listening of the client’s feelings and being able to reflect back to the clients” which could give the significant positive change of the client. Later given Rogers’ transition of work post in the University, Rogers was able to make use of equipment to conduct the multiple interview recordings, and explored the therapeutic moments from the repeating analyses of the recordings. That allowed Rogers to, in his term, “pinpoint” the particular therapist response which could significantly forward the process, and concluded that such “attentive listening and reflecting” was indeed the key element to a helpful therapy. That was also the fundamental evidential ground for Rogers’ formulation of the Person Centered Approach in counseling.
(5) It is believed that under the consistent provision of the three elements – congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard by the counselor, then the client is most likely to be feel secure and safe to progress under with the effective, growth promoting relationship – “relationship characterized by a high degree of congruence or genuineness in the counselor, by sensitive and accurate empathy on the part of the counselor, by a high degree of regard, respect and liking for the client by the counselor, and by an absence of conditionality in this regard.” (in Rogers and Stevens, 1967, pp. 99)